Modernist-Fundamentalist Christians in the early 20th century challenged two centuries of critical scholarship by declaring scripture to be inerrant. This inerrancy became, in the later 20th century, a belief that every word in the Bible is correct, an extreme sort of inerrancy that goes beyond the general teachings of scripture down to the exact language of the texts. Many evangelical seminaries and preachers continue to teach this, using harmonization as a technique to remove doubt.
There are two problems with this approach to scripture. One is theological and the other is practical. I will discuss the practical problem first.
The practical problem is that we know there are errors in scripture, obvious ones, not just ones that contradict modern science or beliefs. A classic example comes from the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 2:25-6 Jesus responds to criticism from Pharisees of his disciples eating grains of wheat in a field,
“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”Mark 2:25-6 NIV
The problem with this passage is that Abiathar was not the high priest when David ate the bread. His father Ahimelech was (1 Sam 21:1-7). One harmonization is that the intent was to say “in the days of Abiathar the high priest” meaning a general time frame, but others assert that the author made an error. Was it Jesus, the author of Mark, or the transcribers? We don’t know.
This is not the only error in the Gospels, let alone the rest of scripture.
This is compounded by the fact that we have many ancient manuscripts and fragments of papyri (ancient scrolls written on papyrus) containing all or parts of the Gospels. These fragments do not all agree with one another suggesting that parts were edited or added later. Modern biblical scholars try to call these out in their translations, but many older translations such as the King James bible are from later versions of the texts than the ones we have and contain these later additions.
How could the Gospels have been changed if they are inerrant and how do we know that the versions we have, which date well after the originals, are correct?
Unfortunately, one common mistake that fundamentalists make is to claim that if there is a single error in scripture then the whole thing must be thrown out.
What are we to make of such statements?
This brings me to the theological problem with inerrancy because it places the authority of scripture above all other authority including that of Christ Himself.
In his Pentacostal speech, Peter did not proclaim the authority of inerrant scripture. Rather he said,
[L]et all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”Acts 2:36-9 NIV
Peter’s speech in Acts 2:14-40 is the Gospel. While it does quote from Old Testament scripture, it says nothing about New Testament texts which have not yet been written. Yet people converted to this new way and this is how converts to Christianity, those God has called, have always received it, a gift of the Holy Spirit, not a gift of scripture.
The theological problem with placing faith in scripture is that it is misplaced and makes the Bible itself into an idol. As Peter makes clear, we are called to place our faith in the raised and living Christ, not a book. The fundamentalist attitude towards the Bible is not unlike that of Islam, that one needs an authoritative book directly from God in order to be saved. Christians reject this idea and place their faith not in words but The Word, who is Jesus Christ.
Does this mean that we should reject the authority of scripture? Not at all.
The Bible is the work of human hands to be sure, but it is authoritative nevertheless. To argue that, because it contains mistakes, it is completely untrustworthy is like saying that because your boss, parent, or teacher makes mistakes they are untrustworthy. Something or someone can have authority over you without being faultless.
If anything, its authority demands the need for better critical scholarship which skirts between credulous harmonizing and hyperskepticism of the right and left wings of Christianity. Despite being at odds with one another, these approaches share the tendency to superimpose culture onto the scriptures. Harmonizers tend to superimpose the baggage of the last 500 years of Christian theology, particularly the Protestant reformation, while hyperskeptics seek interpretations as a reaction against fundamentalism or in support of secular social justice movements, even Marxism.
The danger of uncritical acceptance of scripture is manifold, but one particular problem is that any religious movement can claim the same thing about their texts. Mormons do about the Book of Mormon, which the vast majority of Christians reject. Likewise Muslims do about the Qu’ran. (Critical scholarship of these texts is almost non-existent within these movements.) Christians have no basis for rejecting these texts as authoritative if they do not examine the Bible critically as they would these others.
Likewise, the danger of hyperskepticism is arriving at wrong conclusions because one is unwilling to accept statements in scripture at face value, meaning as historical documents that derive their content from eyewitnesses to what Jesus did and said. For example, making claims about Jesus because you think these are “typical” of a working class Jewish male in 1st century Palestine (or worse 1st century Greco-Roman culture) in direct contradiction of the Gospels is bad scholarship.
Jesus was anything but typical. We might as well make up claims about Isaac Newton or Baruch Spinoza that are typical of 17th century English gentlemen or Dutch-Jewish men. It hardly computes.
Claims that Jesus must have been illiterate, married, ignorant of scripture, trying to start an armed rebellion, a social reformer, or didn’t exist one can argue strongly against just by accepting scripture at face value, but, if you force yourself to only look at alternative sources or assume from the outset that the Gospels are whole cloth inventions of later Christians, you can come to these conclusions. The problem is that you are ignoring the most important facts. Even if you don’t trust what eyewitnesses say, even if you don’t trust them to be unsullied accounts, you can’t discount them entirely.
Good critical scholarship has to be based on evidence before making claims about trustworthiness. Evidence from Gospels and other sources as well as the historical-critical tradition can give us confidence in what the message of Jesus really was and why he presented it the way he did and how the preaching of Peter, Paul, and those who came after may have added to it. I have always found this scholarship to have increased and also changed my faith, challenging preconceived notions I may have had and the baggage inherited from thousands of years of traditional thinking.